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Austin, Texas – In the midst of a passionate discussion about the future of higher education here on Tuesday, one young man stood up and wanted to know if the goal of higher education is to make people productive – or to make them happy.

Happiness and education

It was an unexpected query for a panel entitled: “Can the liberal arts survive in an age of innovation,’’ and just one of the many dozens of discussions that have been taking place this week at, a packed and often frantic festival of ideas, technology, workshops and networking.

The questioner said his experience discussing the great books and getting a graduate degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland truly made him happy; he also acknowledged that it cost about $40,000.  For those concerned about the price, it’s free to pull up the astonishing reading list required of all students at St. John’s.

There was no time to delve into how reading Chaucer and Augustine created joy, nor did a clear-cut roadmap to happiness emerge in the thoughtful panel discussion.  No concrete tips or takeaways were available either, as they were in sessions such as “Surviving the digital zombie apocalypse,” or one entitled “Cook up a batch of blended learning.”

It did become increasingly clear, however, that higher education is under enormous pressure to find less expensive models and new ways of serving different populations, including low-income and first-generation students. The panel discussion arose from a series we’ve been running at The Hechinger Report that looks, from a variety of perspectives, at the value of a liberal arts degree – and at some new delivery models.

There was no time to delve into how reading Chaucer and Augustine created joy, nor did a clear-cut roadmap to happiness emerge in the thoughtful panel discussion.  No concrete tips or takeaways were available either, as they were in sessions such as “Surviving the digital zombie apocalypse,” or one entitled “Cook up a batch of blended learning.”

The liberal arts and the colleges that focus on them are challenged by concerns about the economy, employment and the rising costs of higher education, along with fears that today’s college graduates lack sufficient workforce skills—or that they aren’t learning enough.

All of the panelists agreed that changes are coming, and that institutions, individuals and systems will have to evolve. They all offered thoughtful ideas on how and why. A Drake University twitter recap of the conversation is available; what follows below are excerpts from some of the main points.

Michelle R. Weise, Clayton Christensen Institute

Right now, the pressures are mounting on a liberal arts education because there is a growing skills gap. McKinsey analysts estimate that the number of skill sets needed in the workforce has increased rapidly from 178 in September 2009 to 924 in June 2012. Unfortunately, most traditional institutions have not adapted to this surge in demand of skill sets, and as a result, the gap has widened between degree-holders and the jobs available today.

At the same time, students are becoming much more savvy and more cognizant of the need for direct connections with employers. If colleges continue to eschew the need to tie education to economic relevance, they will risk losing out to learning providers who offer a much clearer pathway to obvious learning outcomes like job attainment.

In their turn away from career-oriented training, colleges and universities are leaving unattended a niche of non-consumers—people over-served by traditional forms of higher education [meaning students who don’t need a full degree, but only a course or two to improve certain skills], underprepared for the workforce, and seeking lifelong learning pathways. Who fills the vacancy and creates strong linkages between learning outcomes and the workforce will be the key to understanding the tectonic shifts in higher education to come.

Click to read series
Click to read series

David Maxwell, President, Drake University

If colleges aren’t producing what employers are looking for, that doesn’t mean we throw out college – it means that they have to do things differently/better. When faced with disruption, we must ensure that we are not sacrificing quality. We have to make sure that we are not sacrificing those elements of higher education that help us discover who we are and why we are, and not simply what we do.

The truth is most students have more successful careers when they receive the best elements of liberal arts and professional education, carried out in learning environments that prepare them for the world of practice (inquiry-based learning; group problem solving; internships and apprenticeships; independent research, etc.).

It’s a good thing that disruption is taking place along our college’s borders: MOOCs [massive open online courses], online providers, competency-based learning, apprenticeship programs, etc. Those things not only address the learning needs of important constituencies, but they also force us to constantly re-examine what we’re doing, how we do it, how we know it’s working – it’s a productive tension, not a threat, and it’s incumbent upon institutional leadership to communicate the urgency of change, of responsiveness, agility and flexibility to adapt to new learning styles, new technologies, new societal and economic needs—and those have not historically been typical characteristics of higher education.

Scott Kinney, president, Capella University

To meet the nation’s economic growth demands, higher education will need to do a much better job of serving the non-traditional student; which already represent 75 percent of all undergraduates. The Obama administration projects that we will need at least 10 million more college grads by 2020 and it will not be possible to get there with younger students.

One of the most powerful ways to serve the non-traditional student is through the effective application of direct assessment, to improve affordability and to increase completion rates.

A competency-based model [in which students earn credits once they’ve mastered a skill] is well suited to meet the current and future needs of working adults. Competency-based models can also teach soft skills. Capella is trying to define competencies for the liberal arts.

A key to unlocking the value is by getting closer to professions and employers. According to recent Gallup poll, only 11 percent of employers believe that they are getting the skills and competencies they need in college grads.  Eighty-eight percent of them would like to work more closely with colleges and university. Using competency-based learning models can engage professional organizations and employers much more directly.

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  1. The Mount Royal University in Calgary has introduced the General Education courses where liberal arts invite students with little affinity for math,to understand and brainstorm on and about innovations through controversies in science. The students are engaged in debates and essays about the variety of sides of stories and findings. The Intro to engineering classes combine lectures on functionality and onnovation with drawing and art,in the Leonardo da Vinci style. Thus,new generations of inventors are coming soon, inspired and dreaming away from apolcalypse.

  2. Aristotle said happiness is the only “self-sufficient” end. All we do is for the sake of happiness while we want happiness for it’s own sake. Happiness is the deepest, most universal human aspiration.

    The young man asks: “if the goal of higher education is to make people productive – or to make them happy”? What follows is the usual brushing off of the question of happiness for superficial assumptions of what causes happiness: books, jobs, perhaps art, etc.

    The findings of positive psychology research and the wisdom of the great philosophers of all ages are ignored. If happiness is the deepest human aspiration, how can we ignore the question of the nature, sources, and means of happiness and pretend that education is all that relevant to the experience of life?

    It is time that we cut through the fog of lesser goals and address the heart of human experience.

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